June 14, 2024

How To Write Better Gun Laws

A far-right Supreme Court today invalidated the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives rule against bump stocks. The rule had been promulgated during Donald Trump’s presidency in response to the 2017 massacre in Las Vagas that was facilitated by the use of bump stocks.

The argument in favor of the ATF ban was that a bump stock converts a rifle into what is virtually a machine gun, the sale of which has long been severely restricted.

NPR, commenting on the court decision noted that, “Justice Thomas, speaking for the majority, said the bump stock doesn’t change the internal firing mechanism, so it can’t be classified as an illegal machine gun.”

Like so many decisions of this court, this ruling turns on minor, seemingly unimportant details.

The reason that lawmakers have had such a hard time framing gun laws is that they go about it in the wrong way. In today’s case, for example, we shouldn’t care about the gun’s trigger or its internal mechanism. What is important is (1) how fast the gun can fire a projectile and (2) how much energy is carried by that projective as it leaves the muzzle. A machine gun is a gun that can fire rounds above some specified rate carrying energy above a certain threshold. I don’t know what those parameters should be. and I doubt that muzzle velocity need be considered, as energy increases with velocity. If a gun performs like a machine gun, it is a machine gun, whatever its internal workings.

Defining firearms using what I suggest are the relevant parameters means that manufacturers cannot get around regulations using various technicalities. This is a much better way of describing what guns are illegal than, for example, listing them by model number or some other incidental characteristic. A ban on assault weapons, if we ever we enact another one, should be based on effective characteristics, not on model number, etc.

In the short term, Congress should pass a law banning bump stocks. Of course, the law must define a bump stock by what it facilitates, not by the means by which it does so. Unfortunately, in our current political climate, this won’t happen.

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